The Waiting Years

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As of April 2021, New York leads the states most affected by the SIJS backlog.

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The SIJS backlog, its impact on vulnerable young people, and what we can do about it

Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) provides a pathway to U.S. legal residency (green card) for undocumented children and young people who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned, and whose welfare would be severely compromised if they were forced to return to their home country.

What is the SIJS Backlog?

By statute, USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) should—and often do—approve SIJ petitions within six months of their filing date. Once they have SIJ status, young people can then apply for their green cards. But suppose that SIJS person is from one of the “Northern Triangle” countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. In that case,  they will find the path to legal residency longer—and far bumpier—than those from other regions of the world.

“SIJS cases are my favorite part of immigration law,” says NY JFON staff attorney Samantha Blecher. She serves clients throughout the greater NYC area and Long Island.

“I have two clients who came to us as teenagers,” explains NY JFON Staff Attorney Samantha Blecher. “We filed for them in April 2019, and they were subsequently approved. However, they were only able to finally apply for a green card last month (December 2021). The approval process of this will likely take another year, if not more.

“A different two clients of mine,” she continues, “applied in September 2018 and were subsequently approved. These two children have been permanent residents for a year and a half already.

“The only notable difference in these cases,” she states emphatically, “is that the first two children are from Guatemala, and the second two are from Venezuela.”

Of the estimated 44,000 immigrant children and young people caught in this backlog, most are from the Northern Triangle. They will wait, on average, at least four years for a green card. And four years is an exceedingly long time when you are a teenager.

Why the Backlog?

Although SIJ status was intended as a form of humanitarian relief, it is unfortunately categorized with the USCIS as employment-based. When any single country accounts for 7% of the green cards issued through this process, that country is then “capped,” and applicants will find themselves facing a backlog.

As regards Samantha’s young clients, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are capped. Venezuela is not.

As of April 2021, New York leads the states most affected by the SIJS backlog.

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Image by Julia Kuo of The Marshall Project; from End SIJS Backlog.

Samantha currently has 25 SIJ clients. All but five of them are from the Northern Triangle, and all but five are trapped in the SIJ backlog.

“I see this issue first-hand on a constant basis,” says Samantha, “and it is truly upsetting.”

SIJ status gives recipients a place to start, but it is not the end goal. Without the security and protections a green card provides, these young people struggle to move forward while carrying an impossibly heavy burden.

SIJ status, Samantha notes, does not make the young person eligible for financial aid or health insurance—and without health insurance, traumatized clients cannot access the mental health counseling that they need.

SIJ status also does not give the recipient authorization to work. This leaves many of Samantha’s clients—those who are 16 years or older and have no parental or familial support—without any means to earn an income. They can then become more vulnerable to depression, exploitation, and homelessness.

Finally, SIJ status does not protect these young people from detention or deportation. Until they have their green cards in hand—which, again, could take as long as five years—this is the threat and the fear they must face every day of their lives.

“It is entirely unfair,” laments Samantha. “Because of the backlog, these already vulnerable children are left in limbo and unable to proceed with their dreams of making a brighter future for themselves.”

What can we do?  

Congress could end the SIJS backlog immediately, state the authors of the End SIJ Backlog Coalition Report, by amending the Immigration and Nationality Act to exempt SIJS children from the visa limitations causing the backlog. All it takes is the political will.

Political will being in short supply at the moment, the authors further recommend that the Biden administration direct USCIS to create a new Employment Authorization Document category for SIJS youth to provide them with work authorization and protection from deportation.

Please read their full report here: Any Day They Could Deport Me.

What can YOU do?

We hope you will consider supporting the work of Samantha Blecher and her colleagues at New York Justice for Our Neighbors on behalf of New York’s vulnerable immigrant youth.

Please also consider joining  The End SIJS Backlog Coalition.

This article was originally published by National JFON on January 24, 2022. Click here to see the original post.

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